‘Canada Was Quite Caring,’ Says Jailed Student Freedom Fighter
Solemn events were held by Burmese Canadians and supporters across Canada on August 8 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the democracy movement in Burma.
August 8, 1988, referred to as 8.8.88, “is very significant in Burmese history because this is the second time having a [mass uprising] calling for change in the political system,” said Tin Maung Htoo, executive director of the Canadian Friends of Burma (CFOB).
The first was the 1938 anti-colonial uprising that laid the foundation for Burma’s independence from British rule ten years later.
More than a decade of parliamentary democracy followed. However, successive insurgencies led by communist and ethnic groups destabilized the economy and the young democratic nation. In 1962 a coup staged by General Ne Win plunged Burma under military rule.
“[Then in 1988,] people showed their desire for change in the political system after living under totalitarian authority for 26 years,” Maung Htoo said. “They didn’t enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms and also became very, very poor.”
Economic hardship and ongoing repression brought millions of people to the streets.
“I was one of the ’88 uprising fighters,” Maung Htoo said. Sixteen years old at the time, he began taking part in the student-led democracy movement in March that year.
Maung Too lived in downtown Rangoon and recalled that on August 8 almost a million people came out, including many young students from outside Rangoon. After marching for 20 to 40 miles, they reached Rangoon city hall around 8 to 9 pm, exhausted.
The shooting took place two hours later, he said.
“I witnessed lots of shooting and massacre, especially on August 8 in the middle of the night in front of the Rangoon city hall. When the shooting took place, I was in front of the crowd.”
Maung Too remembers the military loading the hundreds of dead bodies onto trucks and taking them to the two “fireplace” cemeteries in Rangoon for cremation.
More than 3,000 people were killed between August 8 and 13, including many of his friends; hundreds are still missing. Maung Htoo said some estimate that 10,000 people were killed between March and September 18, 1988, when a new military junta took power.
Canada Offers ‘Caring’ Refuge
After a month in hiding, Maung Htoo fled to the Thai-Burma border where ethnic minorities were fighting for their autonomy. He lived in the jungle for three years as a student freedom fighter and witnessed many of his friends killed in battle or dying of malaria.
During this time he organized many activities aimed at drawing international attention to the military dictatorship in Burma, including campaigns to cut off financial support going to the junta. Seen as a “troublemaker” by Thai authorities, he was arrested and spent three years in a detention centre.
Many human rights groups lobbied for his freedom, including Amnesty International. The Thai government offered him two choices: either return to Burma or go to another country, he said.
At first he feared that going too far from Burma would prevent him from continuing his work in the democracy movement, but he realized that he needed to continue his education.
“Canada was quite caring. Canada was the only country that came to see me in prison,” he said.
Canada offered him resettlement and he arrived in 1996. He studied political science and economics at the University of Western Ontario and graduated in 2003.
The military junta that took control of Burma in September 1988 changed the name of the country to Myanmar in 1989. However, Maung Htoo said Canada is among the countries that continue to use the name Burma. The U.S. also retains the name in support of the leaders democratically elected in 1990.
Last year, Canada conferred honorary citizenship on Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Laureate and leader of the National League for Democracy political party that won 82 per cent of the vote in 1990. The junta refused to recognize her election victory and Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.
China Complicit in Rights Violations
Following the junta’s violent suppression of peaceful protests in Burma last September, international intervention and involvement have increased. However, Maung Htoo said the junta has shown no signs of relaxing its policy.
“It’s very clear they will continue to hold onto power as long as they can. They are trying to get the constitution they wrote approved by the people… They are imposing their will on the people of Burma.”
The international community “has no choice but to keep pressure, but we also have to sort out who is propping up the junta, providing financial assistance, and selling military weapons to the junta,” he said, adding that “it’s very clear now that China is the one.”
“The Chinese communist government is training the military government that is using all means to repress the people and hang on to power. China is complicit in human rights violations in Burma.”
CFOB was among nearly 20 other groups at a large demonstration on August 7 in front of the Chinese embassy in Ottawa to protest the lack of human rights in China on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.
Mon Community rallies in Calgary
8.8.88 events took place in Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. In Calgary, the Mon Burmese community rallied in front of City Hall. The Mon are an ethnic group from Burma living mostly along the southern Thai-Burmese border.
“Twenty years have gone by, but the memory of the killing of protestors during the 1988 uprising is still haunting us. Over the years, more and more people have been arrested, tortured, and unlawfully sentenced to life [in prison]. Those include two Mon prisoners of conscience, namely Nai Chem Ga Kao and Nai Yekha,” said spokesperson Nai Sai Mon.
According to the Mon, human rights abuses such as gang rape by Burmese Army personnel, forced labour, and torture are becoming more widespread, especially in ethnic and remote areas.
As a result of increased military operations against ethnic minorities in Burma, over two million have fled to neighbouring countries and over half a million are internally displaced.
“Internally displaced persons have also incredibly increased along the Thai-Burma border in eleven refugee camps. I have recently been there. I saw that the situation is desperate in terms of shelter, food and accommodation,” said Nai Sai Mon.
The Mon say the junta has been draining oil, gas, and other resources from the country and in turn purchasing weapons and surveillance technology from China, Russia, India and other Asian countries in order to further oppress Burmese citizens.